The curled metal fixtures set to go up on a handful of Michigan Avenue light poles later this summer may look like delicate pieces of sculpture, but researchers say they’ll provide a big step forward in the way Chicago understands itself by observing the city’s people and surroundings.
The smooth, perforated sheaths of metal are decorative, but their job is to protect and conceal a system of data-collection sensors that will measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation and wind. The sensors will also count people by measuring wireless signals on mobile devices.
Some experts caution that efforts like the one launching here to collect data from people and their surroundings pose concerns of a Big Brother intrusion into personal privacy.
In particular, sensors collecting cellphone data make privacy proponents nervous. But computer scientist Charlie Catlett said the planners have taken precautions to design their sensors to observe mobile devices and count contact with the signal rather than record the digital address of each device.
Researchers have dubbed their effort the “Array of Things” project. Gathering and publishing such a broad swath of data will give scientists the tools to make Chicago a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live, said Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, part of a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, near Lemont.
The novelty of a permanent data collection infrastructure may also give Chicago a competitive advantage in attracting technological research, researchers contend.
“The city is interested in making Chicago a place where innovation happens,” said Catlett.
Many cities around the globe have tried in recent years to collect enormous piles of “big data” in order to better understand their people and surroundings, but scientists say Chicago’s project to create a permanent data collection infrastructure is unusual.
Data-hungry researchers are unabashedly enthusiastic about the project, but some experts said that the system’s flexibility and planned partnerships with industry beg to be closely monitored. Questions include whether the sensors are gathering too much personal information about people who may be passing by without giving a second thought to the amount of data that their movements — and the signals from their smartphones — may be giving off.
The first sensor could be in place by mid-July. Researchers hope to start with sensors at eight Michigan Avenue intersections, followed by dozens more around the Loop by year’s end and hundreds more across the city in years to come as the project expands into neighborhoods, Catlett said.
“Our intention is to understand cities better,” Catlett said. “Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility.”
Over the last decade many cities have launched efforts to collect data about everything from air quality and temperature at street level to the traffic flow of pedestrians and vehicles, all in the name of making urban centers run more efficiently and safely.
Much of the useful data has been “exhaust” from an increasingly digital and technological world, scientists say. Improvements in such technologies have led to novel conveniences like smartphone applications that tell you whether your bus is on time or how backed up the expressway is likely to be when you head home.
But Chicago researchers are hoping to put in place a system that will make this city a leader in research about how modern cities function, Catlett said.
The decision to move forward with the system has unfolded without much attention outside the technology community. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who rarely misses a chance to push Chicago as an emerging digital hub, has yet to tout the project publicly.
City officials don’t have firm expectations about what the data may yield but share researchers’ desire to push “Chicago as a test bed of urban analytical research,” said Brenna Berman, the city’s commissioner of information and technology. “Part of why this is so exciting is a lot of the analytics we do is targeted to a specific problem, and this is more general.”
Berman said the investment from the city will be minimal: Between $215 and $425 in city electrician wages to install each box and then an estimated $15 a year for electricity to power each box.
Berman’s office had a say in picking the initial sensor lineup, and she said the list was limited to “nonpersonal” data because the city is still working on a privacy and security policy to govern the protection and confidentiality of any data that the system may collect in the future. Berman expects she and Emanuel will agree on a final version of the document by the end of July.
“We’ve been extremely sensitive to the security and the privacy of residents’ data,” Berman said.
The city will have the last say on what kind of personal data is gathered by the system, “because they’re installed on city property,” Berman said.
“Nothing else can be deployed without the city’s say-so,” she said.
The benefits of collecting and analyzing giant sets of data from cities are somewhat speculative, but there is a growing desire from academic and industrial researchers to have access to the data, said Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University.
“You really don’t know until you look,” King said.
Although he said he was unfamiliar with the project in Chicago, King likened such projects to the early efforts of looking into deep space with the Hubble Space Telescope, opening new and unknown frontiers of information, “only the telescope is pointed downward” at life on the streets of the city.
While the project is led by Catlett’s team and the city, other institutions are involved, he said. The boxes that will hold the sensors are being made by designers at the School of the Art Institute, and Catlett said he has secured more than $1 million in in-kind contributions of engineering help from corporations including Cisco Systems, Intel, Zebra Technologies, Qualcomm, Motorola Solutions and Schneider Electric.
Planners envision a permanent system of data collection boxes that can be used by a range of researchers from the public, private and academic sectors who want to test ideas but wouldn’t have the resources to build the testing infrastructure. The system also will be flexible with the boxes being secure, and connected to power and the Internet, but otherwise adaptable to “the latest and greatest technology” in sensors to meet the as-yet-unknown needs of academic and industrial researchers, Catlett said.
While there are plenty of advocates singing the praises of the city’s push toward gathering and publishing data, some experts say there are risks of invading the privacy of people who don’t know their every movement in public is being observed by a computer and analyzed by someone.
Catlett said the project is designed to keep the kinds of data collected in anonymous forms.
“We don’t collect things that can identify people. There are no cameras or recording devices,” he said. Sensors will be collecting “sound levels but not recording actual sound. The only imaging will be infrared,” rather than video, he said.
But such an effort could still lead to gathering more sensitive information than is intended, said Fred Cate, an expert on privacy matters related to technology who teaches at Indiana University’s law school.
“Almost any data that starts with an individual is going to be identifiable,” Cate said. When tracking activity from mobile phones, “you actually collect the traffic. You may not care about the fact that it’s personally identifiable. It’s still going to be personally identifiable.”
King, the Harvard sociologist and data expert, agreed that the Chicago scientists will inevitably scoop up personally identifiable data.
“If they do a good job they’ll collect identifiable data. You can (gather) identifiable data with remarkably little information,” King said. “You have to be careful. Good things can produce bad things.”
Officials need to plan for “the natural tendency that economics play,” said Cate, the privacy expert. “If you spend a million dollars wiring these boxes, and a company comes in and says ‘We’ll pay you a million dollars to collect personally identifiable information,’ what’s the oversight over those companies?”
Decisions about whether the city should allow the system to be used by industry to study people in a way that could identify them is “ultimately one for voters who have to pay more in taxes,” King said. “It’s a public policy question.”
Catlett said the Chicago project’s planning has consciously addressed such concerns. Data collection projects have sometimes harbored a false sense of security because their methods save mobile devices’ addresses without having a means to “look up” the addresses and connect them to owners, he said.
“However, the danger associated with saving such apparently anonymous data is that it might later be combined with other data sources such that the information can be pieced together to determine identity,” Catlett said. “For this reason, we made the decision that the (sensors) will not save address data, and will only count…….
Read Full Story: Chicago Tribune
Phoenix is the Co-Founder of DontComply.com, ComeAndTakeItAmerica.com, and host of the Don't Comply Radio Show.
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